Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is it Ill-Bred to Have Fun in Museums?

When I show the above photo, that I took at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, here in Ukraine, there's always a small buzz in the audience. Surprising to me until I really started observing museum visitors here. Museum visiting is a very serious experience here. You would never sit on the floor, never hold a lively conversation with family, almost never participate in interactives (because there aren't any).

Interestingly, I was interviewed by the mass media (as the press is referred to here) when I was in Zaporizhia this past week. When I was asked by a reporter how museums were different, I mentioned the fact that in the US, and in many Western European countries as well, that museum-going was thought of as a fun activity. (In fact, I just read that Barack Obama took Michelle to a museum on their first date!) The reporter gave me quite a stern look and said, "perhaps we Ukrainians are too well-bred for that." A bit taken aback, I replied that it was not considered ill-bred in the United States to have fun, to talk, to enjoy oneself at a museum.

I see this "well-bredness" in my workshops as well. Educational experiences here, whether in school or professional settings, tend to be the one-way delivery of information from a lectern. It takes a little bit for my Ukrainian colleagues to try a different approach, but once they do, I've found many of them lively participants with many great ideas. I don't want to be disrespectful of cultural norms in any way, but I do think making museums fun rather than a chore is a good thing--and critical to museums' survival in societies where so many other options for leisure time are available.

I'd love to see highly interactive exhibits here, to see how Ukrainians would react to the chance to behave as they wish in a museum. My guess is that it would take visitors a bit to let lose, but then, given the good humor I've found here, they would have a great time. And so to inspire fun, a video from a 2007 project at the Brooklyn Museum that invited visitors to share their videos on You Tube about the museum's First Friday events. Enjoy!

(And more soon about my time in Zaporizhia--special thanks to my colleagues at the Khortytsia National Preserve for arranging such a productive, interesting time and taking such good care of me--and as always, to Ihor Poshvailo of the Ivan Honchar Museum who has made so much of my time here useful and interesting.)

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